What kind of defense could Iran actually mount against an attack on its nuclear and military infrastructure by Israel and/or the United States?
First of all, discount all the TV pictures of Iranian missiles being fired and troops marching in review. They are designed to boost civilian morale at home. Ironically, Western media has used them to trumpet Iranís alleged military threat. One major US TV network, NBC, even has a fixed logo on its reports from Iran: ďIran Threat.Ē
In reality, Iran, in spite of its 71 million population and oil wealth, is militarily quite weak. Islamic Iran has been under punishing US-led military and economic sanctions since its 1979 revolution, joining other sanctions targets North Korea and Cuba.
As a result, Iran has been unable to modernize most of its 1960ís/1970ís vintage military arsenal, much of which was supplied by the US and Britain to the Shah. Iranís decrepit civilian aircraft fleet has also been punished by US-led embargos, resulting in numerous crashes due to worn-out equipment and lack of spare parts.
An estimated 45-50% of Iranís small, obsolete air force is grounded by lack of spare parts or repairs. Iranís pilots, who last saw action during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, have critically little flying time. Iranís air force lacks modern radars, communications or electronic warfare equipment.
The mainstay of Iranís air force remains about 60 ancient US-built F-14 naval fighters, F-4 Phantom strike aircraft dating from the Vietnam era, and some old US F-5 trainers. Iran also has a grab bag of some 25 Soviet/Russian Mig-29ís, a similar number of capable SU-24 strike aircraft, and some 20 Chinese outdated F-7 fighters. The US -supplied aircraft all suffer from metal fatigue and are more of a danger to their hapless pilots than an enemy.
Iranís bathtub navy has a few small frigates and three modern Russian Kilo-class submarines that are effective in shallow coastal waters. Iranís sizeable numbers of Chinese anti-ship missiles on shore, at sea and carried by aircraft might score a few lucky hits on the mighty US Navy or oil tankers, as could its ample supply of magnetic mines.
But any US assault of Iran, would open by surprise attacks from waves of cruise missiles and stealth aircraft against Iranian air bases, ports and communications hubs. Most of Iranís air force and navy would be destroyed. Iranís obsolete air defenses would be put out of action by missile and cyber-warfare attacks.
Iranís primary method of counter-attacking would consist of commando raids against US bases in the Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, possibly, on Saudi oil installations. But no such attacks would prove decisive or alter the course of the conflict. Iran would be pounded until its attackers decided to cease fire.
Iranís claim last week that it might launch pre-emptive attacks on potential attackers is not credible. Iran simply lacks any effective, long-range offensive capability to attack either Israel or put US bases in the region out of action. Its shorter ranged missiles could inflict some damage on US bases in the Gulf.
Iranís medium-ranged Shahab-3 missile, of which Tehran is said to have a score, has offensive capability Ė but only if armed with a nuclear warhead, which US intelligence says Iran does not possess. Shrinking a nuclear device into Shahabís small nose-cone and ensuring it will survive violent g-forces and heat is a major technological challenge believed beyond Iranís current capability.
Without nuclear warheads, the not very accurate Shahabís are of little more use than Saddam Husseinís laughably ineffective Scuds in 2003. Firing a few at Israel would immediately be picked up by the US early-alert satellite system, into which Israel is linked, and run the risk of triggering possible nuclear strikes by Israel.
Who knows if an incoming missile has a conventional or nuclear warhead? Israel might just believe its own propaganda about Iranís alleged nuclear capabilities.
Iran could put up fierce resistance to a US-led ground invasion, but the Pentagon makes clear it has no such intention after the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. US air power will wage this conflict, if it comes.